Authors: Katy Regnery
West Virginia . . . Seth . . .
Her heart raced and she covered it with her hand, shaking her head as her fingers gripped the comforter.
No. No, it wasn’t him. Stop this!
“This is madness, Griselda Schroeder,” she whispered, using the name she hadn’t uttered since it was officially changed to Zelda Shroder by the Child and Family Services Agency in D.C. to protect her identity following her abduction.
Sitting cross-legged on the bed, she reviewed the facts, as she knew them to be:
She tugged her lip into her mouth, scooting back on the bed to lean against the headboard and think. Something was bothering her because something about Seth being Holden actually felt right.
Holden was a fighter. Always had been.
She thought back to the first time she’d ever seen him—holding his own with Billy. Time and again, he’d challenged the Man, telling him that his name wasn’t Seth and hers wasn’t Ruth. Time and again, when the Man lifted his hand to Griselda, Holden would push her out of the way and take the beating. The morning the Man found her on Holden’s side of the cellar, the beating she got was so bad Holden had jumped on the Man’s back, trying to choke him with his small arms to drag him off Griselda. His reward had been several bruised ribs and a bloody back when the beating was over.
It isn’t Holden
, she insisted, running her hand over her hair to feel where the strands were stuck together with dried blood. But something in her heart was already unfurling—hope, hope, desperate hope.
“He wouldn’t come back here. He’s only twenty-three. He would
go by Seth,” she whispered. “Just because you
him to be Holden doesn’t make it so.”
Tears burned her eyes, and she swiped them away. It had been a huge mistake to allow Jonah to coerce her into coming on this trip. It was completely messing with her head, which throbbed painfully. As soon as Jonah got out of the shower, she’d insist that they pack up and head home.
She pulled her duffel bag off the bureau and threw it on the bed, pulling out a pair of jeans, a white T-shirt, and a gray sweatshirt that said “Georgetown” in navy-blue block letters. Despite the streaks of blood in her hair, she wasn’t interested in showering. All she wanted to do was get the hell out of West Virginia as soon as possible and go home.
Jonah came out of the bathroom, standing in the doorway with a towel wrapped around his waist, and ran his hands through his wet hair.
“Jonah,” she said, standing by the edge of the bed and looking up at him from where she’d been digging through her bag for clean underwear, “I want to go. I want to get out of here.”
“Baby, we still got the cabin until four.”
“No. Now. My head’s killing me. I want to go home.”
“Me and Shawn are going fishing.”
“Jonah, I never ask you for anything.”
He searched her face, then shrugged. “I’ll talk to Shawn about it. Maybe we can leave a little early.” He pushed a Q-tip around his ear with a grimace. “Damn, but that fucker screamed right in my ear before he collapsed last night, and it’s still making my head ring.”
Her face whipped up from the duffel bag, staring at him. Every cell in her body was suddenly on high alert.
“Jonah,” she said breathlessly, her fingers and toes going cold, like she knew, like she knew exactly what the answer would be before she even asked the question. “What did he yell?”
Jonah grimaced, wrinkling his nose as he kept poking the Q-tip in his ear. “Uh . . . sounded like . . . um, Jesus, I don’t know. Grizz. Yeah. Guh-guh-guh-Griiiiiiiiizzzz. Like that. Fucking loud.” He shrugged, turning back into the bathroom.
Her whole body had gone stock-still when he said the name. Frozen, fixed with shock and disbelief and . . . belief. The bathroom door closed with a click and she gasped, “Holden,” covering her mouth with her hand. She wanted to go to him, wanted to run out of the bedroom, out of the cottage, down the steps of the porch and onto the road. Run and run and run until she found him, until she stood in front of him, looking into his unfathomable gray eyes.
Her body felt flushed and weak as her knees buckled, and she collapsed onto the bed, curling up as though protecting herself from blows. Her heavy, throbbing head ached and spun as tears rushed down her cheeks, and she quickly surrendered to darkness.
He heard her soft crying before he opened his eyes and reached his hand out, feeling her hair beside him on the bed.
“D-d-don’t cry, Gris,” he murmured, stroking her hair. “Don’t cry.”
“Seth? Honey? Oh my God. Are you awake?”
“G-G-Gris?” he mumbled again, even though he knew it wasn’t her voice. It made him feel frightened that it wasn’t her. Who was
and where was
“Honey, it’s Gemma.”
“N-n-no,” he sobbed, blinking his eyes shallowly. They were too swollen to open all the way. “Wh-wh-where’s Gris?”
“Gris? Who’s . . . ? I don’t—honey, you took a bad shot to the back of the head.” She raised her voice, telling someone to get a doctor before turning back to him and speaking slowly. “And you . . . you were . . . stabbed a few times. Seth, what do you remember?”
” he screamed.
“Wh-wh-where’s G-G-Gris?” he screamed, shooting bolt upright in the motel bed. Melon-colored light filtered through cheap polyester curtains, casting the small room in an orange glow. Sweat dripped into his eyes, and he used his free hand to wipe his forehead.
“Shut the fuck up!” yelled Caleb from the bed beside him, rolling back over and snoring a few seconds later.
Seth pulled on the handcuff that bound one wrist to the bed frame. He’d gotten used to sleeping with one arm over his head. Even though he swore he wouldn’t run, Caleb wordlessly chained him to the bed every night before heading out to the local bar. After the first night, Seth had learned not to drink anything before bed.
One night, when Caleb left for the evening, he actually forgot to chain Seth up, and it hadn’t really occurred to him to run. There was no one to call, nowhere to go. Theoretically, he could use the motel pay phone, call information, and ask for child protective services. He could tell them that he’d been kidnapped almost four years ago, and yeah, they’d probably come and get him and arrest Caleb, but then what? They’d remand him back into the D.C. foster care system. Back into a “family” where there was a good chance that the “parents” abused and neglected the kids. It would be a matter of time until something unspeakable happened to him with some other unexpected and unknown monster.
At least Caleb was a known entity.
And over the past year, Caleb’s temper, rantings, and ramblings had subsided substantially, almost as though murdering Gris had been a miracle cure for Caleb’s particular brand of crazy. Caleb finally seemed to have some measure of peace in his life, like he had achieved the goal of a life’s work in killing her.
If Seth mentioned Gris, he still got a hard and immediate wallop across the face, but the bad beatings had not restarted since leaving West Virginia, and Caleb’s references to Ruth were less and less frequent. And the idea that they were actually brothers was a very real and constant delusion for Caleb, who seemed to believe that they were four years apart in age, though Seth guessed the gap was closer to forty. Caleb would ruffle his hair affectionately now and then and call him “little brother” almost all the time. What was strange was that there was a genuine tenderness in these gestures, almost as if Seth truly was Caleb’s beloved little brother, and sometimes, shamefully, Seth allowed himself to believe it.
Mostly, Seth told himself he didn’t care if Caleb wanted to pretend they were brothers. The reprieve from daily beatings was such a relief, Seth never argued. When Caleb said, “My little brother will have the grilled cheese, and I will have the . . .,” Seth said nothing. He kept his face blank, like it was the most normal thing in the world that they should be brothers with a four-decade age difference. And there were even times, when strangers or waitresses gave them funny looks in diners, when Seth felt defensive, almost protective of Caleb, which confused him terribly.
When Caleb returned back to the truck or motel room after drinking in the evenings, he’d lie down to sleep, mumbling in circles about how he’d finally cut the cancer out of their family, how he’d destroyed the evil and saved Seth from everlasting damnation. And during these times, Seth would clench his eyes shut and ball up his fists as a thick and sharp hatred of Caleb overwhelmed him, boiling and raging in his adolescent body until he shook from it. He would imagine killing Caleb or jerking the wheel out of his hand when he was driving on the highway and killing them both. He would imagine finding a hammer and burying it in Caleb’s head as he slept. There was a sick but solid pleasure in imagining all the ways he could avenge Griselda’s death. But he was only fourteen years old, and he wasn’t a murderer. Dreams of vengeance did not translate into action, only into a constant, simmering, burning frustration.
Caleb kept saying they were headed to the sea, but as far as Seth could tell, they didn’t travel in a straight line and they never stayed anywhere for more than a day or two. They mostly slept in the truck, but occasionally in motels. Caleb kept his money in a metal box and the key always on his person. Where he’d gotten the money, Seth didn’t know, but it was enough to live on because neither of them worked, but they ate twice a day like clockwork and Caleb drank every night.
The part of Seth’s heart that hid the memories of Griselda hated Caleb with a fierce passion, but it was also true that after a year of living with Caleb, Seth had made a resigned peace with his life. With Griselda gone, there was nothing to fight for, nothing to live for. He was dragged around from town to town without rhyme or reason, but he had food to eat and a dry place to sleep, and when Caleb wasn’t drunk and ranting, he was the quietest companion you could ever imagine.
Seth had known a better life, and he’d known a worse life. He knew the terror of the unknown and balanced it against the comfort of the known.
For lack of another option, he could stand this life until he was old enough and strong enough to free himself from it.
The only thing he
stand was that every night, in his dreams, Gris returned to him. Her blue eyes swam with tears, her little fists clenched tightly by her sides, her horrified face contorted in agony, pleading for his life, as an ocean of rushing water separated them.
A bright light was shining directly into his eyes, first one, then the other, and he winced because it was making his head ache.
His first thought was,
Get that fucking light out of my face.
His second thought, which knocked the first one off the block, was,
Where is Griselda?
“Yeah,” he rasped, his throat scratchy and raw. He managed to get one eye mostly open. “Wh-where am I?”
“Hospital, son. You don’t remember coming here?”
“No, sir. Water?”
“Of course. Nurse! Water, please.” The man put his hands on his hips, standing back to take a look at Seth’s face. “You were injured pretty badly last night. Four stab wounds. Luckily none hit a major organ, but all needed stitches, and we gave you a pint of blood. You’d lost quite a lot. Concussion, of course. Your nose was broken, so I reset it. Fracture on your cheek should heal up in a few weeks. Sewed up a few cuts on your face too. Your ribs’ll be painful for a little while, but they weren’t broken.”
The nurse returned with a cup of water, and Seth took it gratefully, holding it to his lips with trembling fingers.
“There was a woman here.”
The doctor nodded. “Your girlfriend. Gemma Hendricks.”
“No one else?”
“Quint and Clinton Davis brought you in last night and came by to check on you this morning.”
Seth nodded, then flinched. “This morning? What time is it now?”
“I’m sure you’re disoriented. You were brought in around ten last night. Ms. Hendricks arrived early this morning with the Davises and stayed for about an hour until they cleared out to go to work.”
“Wh-what time is it now?”
The doctor looked at his watch. “After two.”
“N-no one else has come?”
The doctor shook his head slowly. “No, son. Are you expecting someone?”
He turned his aching head away, closing his burning eyes. Had he actually seen her? Or had it just been his mind playing tricks on him, his battered head wanting to believe she was still alive? She’d looked so real, but this sort of delusion had haunted Seth before.
“We’d like you to stay for another night, Mr. West, just to rule out—”
“I’ll go home today,” he said resolutely, opening his eyes to look at the doctor. He could barely afford the treatment he’d already received, let alone more time in the hospital.
“I wouldn’t advise that. Your stitches could—”
“I’ll be fine.”
The doctor huffed. “I’m not comfortable discharging you.”
“I’m not comfortable staying.”
“I really can’t—”
“Then I’ll discharge myself.”
The doctor shook his head in disapproval. “At least let me get some fresh gauze and antibiotics together for you. You’ll have to change the dressings once, maybe twice, a day. I can instruct Miss Hendr—”
“Mr. West, there are people who care about you, willing to help. I think—”
“Fine. Give me an hour to put together a sheet of instructions and some supplies.”
The doctor gave Seth a troubled look before patting his shoulder and turning to leave the room. Seth watched him go, then turned his face to the windows that looked out over the hospital lawn.
He desperately tried to pull his memories of last night from his throbbing, fuzzy head.
Taping his hands . . . “To Make You Feel My Love”. . . Clinton’s warning . . . meeting Eli in the ring . . . the fight . . .
. . .
He closed his eyes, fixing on the memory of her face. Blue eyes, golden hair, chin scar. It was her—it
to be her. Every night since the day she’d been murdered in the Shenandoah, Seth had dreamed of her. Every night since he was fifteen years old, he’d fallen asleep staring at her face. He knew her face like the back of his hand. Better. He knew it better than anything else in the world, and there was no way he could mistake it. Either the girl from last night was her, or he was ready for a straitjacket, because he was going as crazy as Caleb.
“G-God, Gris,” he whispered as tears burned his eyes. “How are you alive?”
How was it possible? Had she managed to escape that day? Had Caleb shot her, but she somehow survived? Had she been buried alive, but escaped after they’d driven away? But the blood on Caleb’s shirt. The grave. Caleb said he’d killed her. Could he have been lying? Seth needed answers, and he needed them now.
More memories of last night teased him, and he flinched because the harder he tried to remember, the more his head throbbed. She had been arguing with someone last night. Who? He blinked. The college boy in the polo shirt. Seth’s fingers clenched into fists, and he tightened his jaw. Who the fuck was that guy? And why was he upsetting her? He winced, searching his memory. The college boys were standing with Quint, and she was yelling at one of them. Quint. He needed to get to Quint. Now.
He looked around the room wildly for a telephone, but there was none. His jeans were draped across a chair on the other side of the room. It took more strength than he had for Seth to swing his legs over the bed, but his wrist yanked him back, still attached to an IV. He pulled it out, grimacing at the sharp pinch.
Resting on the side of the bed, his chest, right under his pecs, burned like crazy, and he looked down to see a white bandage stained with brown blood and freshly seeping red. Wincing, he stood up carefully, his head swimming as he shuffled toward the chair, steadying himself by holding on to the foot of the hospital bed. He lurched once and landed in the chair, trying to catch his breath. After a moment, he reached for his jeans and pulled them on, moving slowly, finally standing to yank them to his waist. Three more wounds on his left hip and lower back throbbed, so he didn’t zip or button the pants.
His face was slick with sweat as he made his way to the hallway, resting in the doorway for a minute before he took slow, careful, barefoot steps to the nearby nurse’s desk.
“Mr. West, what are you doing out of bed? I must insist—”
“I need a phone.”
to get back in bed.”
His voice was scratchy but firm. “
The phone. N-now
Her mouth dropped open, but she picked up the phone sitting in front of her and raised it to the counter where he was leaning. He nodded in thanks and picked up the receiver, dialing Clinton’s cell phone.
“It’s Seth. Pick me up.”
“Dang, Seth. They letting you out already?”
“Where’s your pop at?”